4/10/2013 11:27:00 AM

A Chat With Lenoir Chef Todd Duplechan

When you eat at chef Todd Duplechan’s South First restaurant, you’re not just eating in Austin, Texas. Duplechan’s influences pull from Thailand, India, Mexico, Louisiana and everywhere else that gets as hot in the summer as our little city. The friendly, knowledgeable chef ran the New York circuit before reimagining Trio in the Four Seasons, and two years ago he opened his own place, Lenoir. We caught up with Duplechan to talk about his upcoming plans to cook at the James Beard House as well as what it’s like to work with his wife, pastry chef Jessica Maher, and what real, global cuisine tastes like.

Have you always been interested in food and cooking? 

Definitely. My family’s all from Louisiana, so food is the most important thing. My dad was a bachelor, so we went out to eat a lot, at really strange places. He grew up pretty poor and ate crawfish, squirrels, turtles, doves. When he was in the military he had this realization that poor people food is poor people food, no matter where you are, and he developed an affinity for it. He spent a lot of his time in Asia. So we went out to places that, you know, in the late eighties and early nineties, most white people weren’t going to. It was weird food, and the menus weren’t in English.

I see that influence in your food. I've had a sausage at Lenoir that was Southeast Asian but also like boudin. 

That’s a lot of the idea of the restaurant, at least conceptually. It’s about where we live in relation to what we eat. We don’t eat how we should here, climate-wise, because of the immigrants that came here. The Czech and German immigrants that came here brought their culture and their food style, which is a lot colder weather food style. That coupled with Tex-Mex - it’s really heavy food for an area that’s so hot. Classically or historically, when you look at places that are hot, you don’t eat heavy food. You eat acidic and citrusy, brothy, spicy food, because that works well with the climate.

In thinking about that and overthinking about that, I started noticing global connections. There’s this fermented sausage that’s from Thailand that’s similar to salami. But to get the fermentation going they’re adding about 20 percent rice. So I put together a sausage that’s not necessarily a Thai-style sausage but not necessarily a boudin. It’s from here, but it’s also from Thailand but it’s also from Italy. 

Just talking about the hot-weather cuisine concept, how has it changed since y’all first opened? 

It’s gotten more complicated as far as technique and that there are more ingredients on a plate. But the central theme of the restaurant hasn’t changed: light food, no butter, no cream, acidic, spicy food. We’ve just gotten a little more foofy, as I like to say.

You’re the only restaurant in town that offers only a prix fixe option and no a la carte menu. How have people responded? 

Most people really like it. On Sundays we even do a four-course, no-choice menu. That’s the original concept that I had, no choices. You just come in and you get what we’re serving. But my wife talked some sense in me.

Still, there’s room to grow in that way.

So, no butter and no cream. Lenoir is also one of the places I recommend for people with gluten allergies. Is that something you play to? 

I use a lot of alternative flours just because. I’m influenced by a lot of Indian things, and in India they use a lot of dal flours. If I’m using chickpea flour, for example, it changes the flavor and the texture.

I think a lot more about what goes in the food and how it’s going to affect people than most chefs do. I worked with a chef in New York that was very much about purity of food, and basically the food just being what it is and not hiding things in it. Not like, "Oh, there’s pork in this or there’s shrimp stock in this." That way people know exactly what they’re getting and can appreciate that.

I also consider it a challenge to be able to fulfill people’s dietary needs in a truthful way. Not where they’re like, "Oh this is good for gluten-free food," but where it’s just good. For another example, there are so many vegetarian or vegan dishes that are so wonderful there’s no need to fake people out. There’s whole cultures that don’t eat meat, and their food is amazing.

You mentioned Trio and your time in New York. What do you feel like you took away from those experiences? 

At Trio I learned about Austin and became an Austinite. When I moved here I was very much a New Yorker, even though I’m from Texas.

I came here thinking I was going to revolutionize Austin with my New York – style food. But what I learned along the way is that Austin isn’t starving for New York – style food. Austin is Austin.

Now New Yorkers seem to want Austin. Little pockets of Austin-y type things are opening up all over New York.

What do Austinites want? 

Fancy, showy stuff does not work all that well here. I came here and was like, "There are no high-end really amazing modern French restaurant here." Well, there had been. Just not anymore.

The richest people in Austin ate at Trio all the time, but they would also eat at Chuy’s for lunch. It’s just not cool to show people you have a bunch of money. It’s cool to be a normal dude, like everyone else, but have $40 million in the bank.

It's a wonderful thing. And it shows why people in New York, L.A. and other places are trying to emulate Austin more.

The talent pool in cooking has increased, and now you have young cooks that don’t have money or backing but are extremely talented, and they’re like, "I’ll put my food on a paper plate, I don’t care." Paul Qui is a perfect example, making food at a trailer. At the time that he was doing that, for most chefs that was like, "A trailer, dude, what?"And now he won’t return my phone calls.

[He answers a phone call from his wife, Jessica Maher, and says just one word: “Hopfields.”] 

That’s marriage right there.

So what’s it like to work so closely with your wife, Jessica? 

It’s great. It’s certainly not easy, but we have some good people to look toward in the business, like Emmett and Lisa Fox [the owners of Fino and Asti Trattoria], who are kind of our counselors.

We’re getting ready to cook at the James Beard House. We’re still deciding whether we’re going to cook stuff that was grown in Austin to New York or if we’re just going to take our style of food and apply it to what’s growing in New York.

Besides James Beard, what’s next for you guys? 

Um, I think I’m going to get another cup of coffee [laughs].

We have plans to do another project, hopefully this year. But since we’re a mom and pop and don’t have investors, it will take a bit longer than at other places. It might be a restaurant. Or we’re going to open a Laundromat [laughs].

Anything I left out? 

I’m glad you didn’t ask me about what the next culinary trend is going to be. I don’t know. I get that question tons, and all I’d be able to tell you is what I want to have happen. I mean, cake balls, who saw that coming?


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